Mommy wars and the New York Times

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Dennis Mojado photo, http://photography.mojado.com

What is it about the New York Times and feminism? I know this is a stupid question; other people routinely point out that the Times is anti-feminst. But for some reason, I keep being shocked.

Lots of press outlets have been selling the “Mommy Wars,” featuring career women (and feminists) vs. stay-at-home mothers. Most recently up: Hilary Rosen, who was jumped by the Romney people for saying that since Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” she shouldn’t be Mitt’s advisor on women’s economic issues. See? Those career women/feminists don’t think mothering is work. Radio host Joe Scarborough explained the gaping chasm between Democrats/feminists and Republicans/mothers this way, “It’s amazing,” he said, “the divide between professional women, on one side, unmarried women or married women without children — predominantly Democratic. The other side of the divide? Married women with children who stay at home — predominantly Republican.” Rosen and Romney, he continued, represent this very divide. The problem–both for Scarborough’s argument and for Democrats–is that Hilary Rosen is a mother. A lesbian mother of two biracial children. Huge surprise: Obama denounced her comments and said she should apologize.

More recently, the Times and its bretheren have been getting wound up again about the English translation of Elizabeth Badinter’s The Conflict, which, as we know, argues for a minimalist approach to mothering as a solution to the conflict for women between paid work (and sexy and/or public persona) and parenthood. Last month, this got neatly boiled down in the Times “Room for Debate” blog page to the basic conflict of “motherhood vs. feminism.”

Really, with that kind of press, it’s no wonder so many people think feminist is a dirty word. The only other folks I can think of who are routinely characterized as being “against” children and motherhood are pedophiles and, less often now, queer folk.

A couple of weeks ago, I was happy to see what should have been a bit of a corrective: significant articles about the work of two feminist stalwarts in the paper of record for their work on childbirth and the gendered and classed labor of parenting. Except both pieces went on to ask whether these women hated feminism, since feminists are, after all, against motherhood. Seriously?

One was called, you can’t have guessed it: Mommy Wars: The Prequel. It’s a largely sympathetic piece about Ina May Gaskin and the “Farm,” where Gaskin, a lay midwife, delivers babies “naturally.” Gaskin, like the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective and feminist anthropologist Robbie Davis Floyd, is a critic of the routine medicalization of childbirth. She argues for low-intervention, gentle and even “spiritual” and (potentially) orgasmic birthing. The Times spent two paragraphs contrasting Gaskin’s work with feminism–Shulamith Firestone’s technocratic fantasies, Simone de Beauvoir’s unease about pregnancy, and Gaskin’s own story about being booed by feminists at Yale. Gaskin has told that story elsewhere, but described the reaction as “not feminism,” and talked about how powerful the slogan “Sisterhood is powerful” was in her own life as a young mother. Perhaps it’s true, as the Times and her own Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta suggest, that Gaskin has felt alienated by feminists and feminism, but she also is clearly well aware that feminists like Barbara Katz Rothman and Genea Corea are very much on the same page as she is, as she cites them in another interview. Above all, she seems to be arguing for a change in feminism, or, to put it in my own terms, to be characterizing a split in feminism. Furthermore, when Gaskin gets criticized–as in this blog post by an OB who argues that home birth has an unacceptably high rate of neo-natal death–it’s as a “feminist anti-rationalist.” (The question of whether rates of birth accidents are too high in home births is one feminists debate, too, by the way.)

The second was a review of Arlie Hochschild’s new book, The Outsourced Self. In it, Hochschild talks to the elder-care specialists, wedding planners, childcare providers, and commercial surrogate mothers who, she argues, have taken over our emotional and caring labor. If Gaskin’s relationship to feminism is complicated but complimentary, Hochschild’s is absolutely clear: she’s been one of the faces of feminist sociology, and in fact, has been one of only a handful of feminist academics who has been widely read outside of academe. Her books include an edited collection with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, and The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. Hochschild has been one of our most reliable chroniclers of how families and households have coped with what’s happened to “women’s work” as declining real wages have pushed virtually all adults–notably white middle-class mothers who previously could evade it–into the paid labor force, while the U.S. American workplace has changed almost not at all. She has asked whether men do housework and childcare (less than you might hope), and then how that labor has been outsourced and globalized.

How does the Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, turn H0chschild into a critic of feminism? Here’s the quote, at length:

“So does Hochschild deplore feminism? No. But she does think it has been “abducted,” as she has put it in an essay published elsewhere, by the logic and demands of the marketplace — what she provocatively calls “the religion of capitalism.” Feminism has coincided with a drastic lengthening of work hours and a steep decline in job security, and in America those stressors have not been alleviated by social supports like paid family leave and universal child care, at least not in comparison with most other Western nations. As a result, too many bonds of family and community are left untied by anxious, overworked couples, too many familial functions have to be subcontracted, and too many children perceive themselves as burdens. (One of Hochschild’s finest essays, also published elsewhere, is called “Children as Eavesdroppers”; it describes how children listen closely to their parents’ haggling over child care, and conclude that they are unwanted.) Feminists once dreamed that the work of mothering would be properly valued, maybe even reimbursed, once some portion of it had been redistributed to fathers. Instead, a lot of it is being handed off to strangers — although, to be fair, American men do more than they used to.”

Somehow, its not that the logic of capitalism has bulldozed the feminist desire for meaningful work that included but exceeded child rearing, but that feminism itself has become complicit in the outsourcing of emotional labor.

To say I’m skeptical barely scrapes the surface. In fifteen years as a Women’s Studies professor (and an educational career that got me all the way to 24th grade), I’ve never once read a feminist meditation on how great the logic of the market is, or how the US workplace and social policies are contributing to the building of a feminist utopia. On the contrary, Hochschild’s critique puts her in the mainstream of feminist accounts of what’s happening to the relationship between intimate labor and paid labor.

The thing that makes this all so annoying is not just the routinized feminist-bashing. It’s that feminism is one of the intellectual and political spaces where people have thought long and hard about childbirth, parenting, and intimate labor. Articles like these, in the Times and elsewhere, borrow many feminist insights and hard-won critiques while dissing the movement that brought them to the fore. And if we want to forge an alternative to the anodyne “work-life balance” that corporate HR offices offer us, that implies its our fault if we can’t make it all “balance,” or corporate medicine’s risk-management approach to childbirth, with its 33% C-section rate, we need feminism.

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Comments

  • Eva  On June 8, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Speaking of the Times, have you seen Page One?

  • Laura Briggs  On June 8, 2012 at 11:02 am

    What am I missing? Loved the article on the low approval rating for the Supreme Court–they so deserve it after Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, to say nothing of the pick-and-choose approach to states rights and constitutional law whose only logic is apparently political. But is that what you meant?

    • Laura Briggs  On June 9, 2012 at 10:23 am

      oh, wait. The Huff Post piece on how the NYT edit said Hillary Clinton was fat! Good grief.

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